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Memex’s Time Has Finally Come

The extraordinary Memex was a personal memory extender conceived in 1945, as well as the inspiration for a number of modern-day technological innovations. It’s only now, though, that the Memex may be truly feasible.

Memex’s Time Has Finally Come

What is the connection between a diamond and a lead pencil? I used to know this, I just can’t remember….* Wouldn’t it be great to have a memory extender you could tap into whenever you forgot something like this?

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Introducing the Memex, the Memory Extender. A new startup? A new cloud service? Not even close.

Believe or not, Memex was hatched back in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, the director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the government agency responsible for the Manhattan Project and other World War II scientific/engineering projects. In a July 1945 article in The Atlantic, entitled, “As We May Think,” Bush laid out his plans for a personal memory extender, a device that would allow people to offload memory clutter to an external device for handy retrieval.

The Memex was basically a desk (see a rendition here), that incorporated a document scanner, a voice recorder, a touch-sensitive screen and a keyboard – all for entering data. Each data item entered was automatically assigned an ID number. Then each item was cataloged and stored on microfilm. The Memex user would then associate each data item with a set of trail codes, or what we would call today, tags. In this way, items like documents or photos could be classified into categories. (This is exactly how today you tag photos of your summer vacation.) These associations were stored in the Memex code book which included the mapping between tags and related data items. To later retrieve an item from memory, the user would type the trail code (i.e. tag) like ‘summer vacation’ on the code book keyboard and all associated items like vacation photos would be retrieved. The user could then scroll through each item sequentially by turning a crank. (Imagine viewing your photo albums this way today…)

Bush displayed remarkable foresight in conceiving the Memex. This was no Buck Roger’s light ray, it could have really worked. Bush was a first-rate engineer and the device was designed using contemporary, off-the shelf technology. Bush even updated the Memex specification twice, in order to take advantage of new technology, once in 1959 and then again in 1967.

The Memex seems like such a good idea, so why wasn’t it ever built? My research uncovered at least eight reasons, including: no real need for the device, it had a clunky user-interface, and it didn’t correctly model the way we think. Some commentators even claimed the Memex shouldn’t be built; by relieving us of the need to remember things, the Memex would make us intellectually lazy. This last argument is as old as Socrates who lamented that the invention of writing would “destroy memory and weaken the mind.” (For a modern day version of this argument, see Nicholas Carr’s excellent “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”)

While never built, the Memex has proven to be exceptionally influential. The Memex has been cited by many inventors as their inspiration for ubiquitous computer technology such as the mouse, touch-screens, graphical user interfaces, information retrieval techniques, and hypertext, to name just a few. The Memex spawned countless articles and books, as well as a 50 year anniversary “Memex and Beyond” symposium, held at MIT in 1995, where leading computer scientists discussed the impact of the Memex on the development of computer technology.

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The Memex Lives On

Over the years attempts have been made to implement parts of the Memex vision. Some examples include Microsoft’s MyLifeBits project, the UK’s Memories for Life project, Yale University’s Lifestreams project, and Carnegie-Mellon University’s Experience on Demand project. These initiatives all tried to demonstrate the feasibility of saving and storing life memories for later retrieval, but none ever came close to commercial deployment.

Contemporary software tools like Evernote, Springpad and Mendeley, demonstrate the practicality of a Memex-like experience. In a 2008 interview, Evernote CEO Phil Libin even claimed that the company’s aim was to build the Memex. These tools and others allow you to save text, references to web pages, photos, audio and video files, notes, and other information in the cloud, where they are retrievable from a host of devices such as desktop computers, web browsers, smartphones, and tablet computers. These tools use of tagging to associate information with topics fulfills Bush’s vision of ‘memory trails,’ which was one part of the Memex, the idea that people can retrieve data items through memory associations.

In my opinion, the realization of the Memex is finally about to occur. The widespread availability of two new technologies will finally make the Memex a reality: the ubiquitous availability and affordability of cloud storage, and the proliferation of the iPad and other tablet computers. For the first time, we now have the hardware, the software, and the storage service that makes the Memex a reality. We can now clip, save, store, classify and retrieve information anywhere, anytime. The culmination of the Memex vision is only dependent on a practical and intuitive integration between these key technologies. And that will surely come.

Socrates must be turning over in his grave…again.

*answer: both the diamond and the lead pencil are made of carbon.

This post was part of a research project, of which a summary can be found here.

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Author David Lavenda is a high tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

[Image: Flickr user Bulldog1]

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About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

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